When my wife and I dated, I praised her beautiful cat when I visited her home. The cat maintained that imperial posture and attitude that is common in virtually all felines. And that came as no surprise, since she was an Egyptian Mau, one of the most ancient of breeds. She passed on long decades ago, but her haughty, regal bearing is etched in my memory.
I thought of her today when I read the following in the December issue of First Things, in the executive editor’s column.
Wandering around the American Kennel Club’s big “Meet the Breeds” event with my two youngest children recently, I saw a big banner in the cat section proclaiming that a particular breed had been considered a god by an ancient civilization. Of course, our understanding of the genuine religious impulses of ancient religions has increased, but still, one of the gifts the Jewish people have brought the world is that no one who knows about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the least bit tempted to worship cats.
I mean, would you want to worship a murderous narcissistic psychopath? This is not an image of God to make anyone happy. If you’re going to worship an animal, why not the Border Collie, frantically eager to please, or the loving, soulful-eyed Lab? Or the alert and protective German Shepherd? Or the indomitable Saint Bernard? Or the classic loyal and even-tempered mutt?
I don’t intend to offend any cat lovers by repeating this observation—my son has an affectionate tabby he rescued as a kitten while a senior in high school, that’s welcome in our home anytime. Still, as an unrepentant dog person, and “papa” to a rescued border collie, the words above brought a smile to me.
C.S. Lewis painted a graphic image of one animal-headed deity. It was Tash, the god of the Calormenes. In The Last Battle, we see that in Narnia, the reality behind the lifeless image can be most terribly revealed.
In the shadow of the trees on the far side of the clearing something was moving. It was gliding very slowly Northward. At a first glance you might have mistaken it for smoke, for it was grey and you could see things through it. But the deathly smell was not the smell of smoke. Also, this thing kept its shape instead of billowing and curling as smoke would have done. It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, curved beak. It had four arms which it held high above its head, stretching them out Northward as if it wanted to snatch all Narnia in its grip; and its fingers—all twenty of them—were curved like its beak and had long, pointed, bird-like claws instead of nails. It floated on the grass instead of walking, and the grass seemed to wither beneath it. . . .
The others watched it for perhaps a minute, until it streamed away into the thicker trees on their right and disappeared. Then the sun came out again, and the birds once more began to sing. Everyone started breathing properly again and moved. They had all been still as statues while it was in sight. “What was it?” said Eustace in a whisper. “I have seen it once before,” said Tirian. “But that time it was carved in stone and overlaid with gold and had solid diamonds for eyes. It was when I was no older than thou, and had gone as a guest to The Tisroc’s court in Tashbaan. He took me into the great temple of Tash. There I saw it, carved above the altar.”
“Then that—that thing—was Tash?” said Eustace.
In our world, idolatry has certainly evolved since it’s pantheistic and zoolatrous beginnings. Today we are tempted by material indulgences and corruptions aplenty. While few of us impute divinity to animals or objects of stone or wood, we don’t have to look far to find something we deem worthy of adoration.
Our favorite idol is neither beast nor mammon. It is ourselves. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain:
This act of self-will on the part of the creature, which constitutes an utter falseness to its true creaturely position, is the only sin that can be conceived as the Fall. For the difficulty about the first sin is that it must be very heinous, or its consequences would not be so terrible, and yet it must be something which a being free from the temptations of fallen man could conceivably have committed. The turning from God to self fulfils both conditions. It is a sin possible even to Paradisal man, because the mere existence of a self—the mere fact that we call it “me”—includes, from the first, the danger of self-idolatry. Since I am I, I must make an act of self-surrender, however small or however easy, in living to God rather than to myself. This is, if you like, the “weak spot” in the very nature of creation, the risk which God apparently thinks worth taking.
Now, this is a sin to which I frequently find myself succumbing. I far too often think first about my own desires and appetites . . . only later (if ever) becoming concerned with the needs of my neighbor.
No, it’s neither cat nor dog that needs to be evicted from the throne in my soul reserved for my Creator—it’s me.